The Environmental Impact of Power Lines
September 20, 2023

Power lines are a ubiquitous part of our landscape, essential for transmitting electricity from power plants to our homes and businesses. However, above-ground power lines, while being cost-effective and easy to maintain, come with a significant environmental toll. Let’s take a look at the negative environmental impacts of above-ground power lines and how underground power lines can be a more sustainable alternative.

The Environmental Toll of Above-Ground Power Lines

Fire Risk

Above-ground power lines are a significant fire risk, especially in areas prone to wildfires. Sparks from power lines can ignite nearby vegetation, leading to devastating fires that ravage ecosystems and human communities alike. The 2018 Camp Fire in California — the deadliest in the state’s history — was ignited by a faulty power line.

Habitat Disruption

The construction and maintenance of above-ground power lines require clearing large swaths of land and cutting down native trees. This process disrupts local ecosystems, leading to habitat loss and fragmentation for many species.

Once power lines are erected, they can also pose significant risk to local wildlife. This is particularly true of large bird species such as eagles and hawks. These birds are at risk of colliding with exposed power lines, which often results in injury or death. The US Forest Service reports that “collisions with power transmission and distribution lines may kill anywhere from hundreds of thousands to 175 million birds annually.”

The Case for Underground Power Lines

To circumvent these environmental dangers, many experts advocate for the adoption of underground power lines. Here’s why:

  • Reduced wildlife impact: Underground lines eliminate the risk of mid-air bird collisions and electrocutions.
  • Lower fire risk: By placing lines underground, the risk of electrical sparks igniting wildfires is significantly reduced.
  • Preserved habitats: Underground lines require less land disturbance during installation, helping to preserve both natural habitat and scenic beauty.

While underground power lines come with a higher initial cost, the long-term benefits they offer — both to the environment and to the safety of human communities — make them a compelling and responsible choice for our energy future. They also have aesthetic value, allowing landscapes, cityscapes, and visually unique communities to remain undisturbed.

Here at Scenic America, we value our country’s scenic beauty and want to see it persist. We work to preserve the Scenic Byways, landscapes, and towns that define our nation’s visual character. Donate today to help us protect our beautiful places and the heart of our country’s character!